Friday, 30 May 2014

Shinsecki sacrificed, VA next?

It’s hard to tell which is the more revolting, loathsome and morally bankrupt posture being taken on the scandal of care shortages in the Veterans Administration system: the Republicans who, with elephantine balls, denounce the shortages of personnel and facilities that they themselves produced through the relentless theo-classical austerity approach to government; or the craven Democrats who refuse to call them out for it and instead allow the loyal Shinsecki to take the fall for them.

No doubt the Repub side is also sniggering Beavis-like into its collective sleeve over the exit of Shinsecki, who dared to contradict Donald Rumsfeld’s famous lies over Iraq and was bounced for it. I guess he has a soldier’s view of duty and accepts all this abuse as just part of the time-honored game of war: money flows up, shit flows down.

As Anthony Orlando points out in the Huffpost today, the true costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles are only beginning to be felt, and unwelcome voices have been trying to make themselves heard to that end for years. No one wants to hear it, least of all the geniuses who decided we should spend trillions in these insane, criminal enterprises.

Imagine a White House and a political establishment willing to go on the attack over the constant cutting back on all social services, including those benefiting veterans, instead of rolling over and playing dead over the predictable scandals involving fudging of schedules and care. Just as school districts inevitably will cheat on tests tied to their funds and futures, short-changed hospitals will try to game their superiors forcing them to do more with less and the impossible with nothing (see todays NY Times for an anecdotal report). Today’s example is a perfect display how the two sides play their assigned roles to perfection with the result that the VA, once the jewel of socialized medicine, will be nudged further towards the privatization chopping block.

Monday, 26 May 2014

America’s suicide bombers

Now that it’s Memorial Day, we can gather at the nearest cemetery and weep over the last few kids blown away by the most recent wacko with a semi-automatic, recall the lives of the random victims, shed a few tears, raise our candles, visit the grief counselor, and sooner or later get back to the routine a little shaken but resigned to the deaths as if the classmates had slipped on a patch of ice or been carried off by a tornado.

I’m not sure how I’d feel if any of the dead had been an acquaintance of mine, but from a distance I shudder to think that yet another hand-holding memorial ceremony in the face of this latest outrage would be quite adequate. To hear a university president express “sorrow, shock and pain” given the routine inevitability of these events seems almost a mockery of the dead.

The irony of the shooter coming from a family involved in the making of sport-murder films like The Hunger Games is not lost on some of us even though commentators have avoided, prudently, anything that hints at pinning blame on the shooter’s parents. But without dredging up a facile cliché about sanitized movie violence and its alleged effects, there is something particularly chilling about this handsome kid’s eerily bland and infantile video in the service of nihilism and evil.

One does wonder what on earth is going on in our culture to produce such a frightening display of murderous adolescent angst. The cold-eyed child soldiers of Sierra Leone or the Congo have nothing on this product of our morally perilous polity.

I stumbled upon news of the Santa Barbara shootings after reading a depressing tale about a soccer coach in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, trying to salvage the throwaway lives of poor kids trapped between the options of crushing poverty or a short, violent (but well-fed) life in a gang. While young Mr Rodger roamed the tony precincts of Isla Vista in his beautiful auto, whining about having nowhere to put his dick, these Honduran children were wondering whether they would get lunch.

Perhaps the bronzed children of Santa Barbara should be getting a little more opportunity to see the world outside the bright confines of their edenic party school and inspired to find meaning in—dare I sound so ridiculous?—making the world a better place. I’d be encouraged if they had decided, instead of sharing their choked remembrances beneath the swaying palm trees, to stage their prayer circle at the local headquarters of the NRA.

As it stands, all will be soon forgotten except for the bereaved families whose lives now are shattered, today’s unlucky ones condemned to the agony of losing a child while, for tomorrow’s, absolutely nothing will be done. What will stop our suicide bombers as they go forth and multiply?

Friday, 16 May 2014

Turkish PM visits mine disaster site, goes whack

The powerful, like the rich, are not like you and me. It’s doesn’t take long for a person with a retinue of hangers-on, greedy ass-kissers, and the sort of ruthless managers and operators that cling to the guys in charge like cheap Velcro to turn a boss or pol or public figure into a cliché of clueless obnoxiousness. The examples are too legion to begin to mention, but I remember a perfectly normal middle-class activist in Chile telling anyone who would listen about what she called the “Altitude Virus” that beset her when she became a congressional deputy. She even wrote a short book with that title (El virus de altura, by Laura Rodríguez of the Humanist Party, sadly felled by brain cancer in her 30s not long after taking office).

Rodríguez said the constant hubbub, the polite masses hanging on one’s words (as if they had a choice not to) and the adrenalin-fueled days full of phone calls, meetings, hallway confabs, rushed meals, the whole environment of power and importance, quickly convinced an otherwise normal person that they were some rockin', rollin' shit. She said it took about six months.

I recalled those comments this week when reading about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan [above] who clearly has lost his marbles. What head of a country that has just had the worst mining accident in decades goes to the grieving village where half the men were just asphyxiated underground and gives them a history lesson about mining disasters in the U.K. in the 1800s? What giant bozo thinks that because his friends and backers have a ton of money and have to make it by ripping out worker safety precautions that the villagers who can barely get their breath are going to put up with statements like,”These are usual things”? The guy has real je ne sais quois, no?

Not content with that performance, Erdogan proceeded to respond to a heckler in the grocery store where he had to run away from his constituents for safety, like this, according to an eyewitness cited by the Haberinyeri website:

When inside the store, I saw the Prime Minister in an aisle next to a young girl who looked around 15 or 16 years old. Then I heard her cry and scream “What is my dad’s murderer doing here?” Right after that I saw the Prime Minister grabbing her and placing her head under his arm. He started to hit her face repeatedly. She kept saying “Please stop.” I have never seen anything like this in my life. I was aghast with shock. How can a Prime Minister do something like this? My father was also with me. I could not get over what I saw since yesterday. As I'm telling you this, I am still shaking and very scared. I'm afraid that something could happen to me or my fiancee because of what I witnessed.

I guess when you’re riding high and heading for your fourth term in office as the embodiment of the Nation and True Religion, little things like the deaths of 300 poor slobs out in the countryside somewhere doesn’t register as important.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Miss Schoolmarm gives out a whack

Okay, class, try reading this lead sentence quickly:

Because the Bretton Woods system had broken down only a few years before the financial markets needed a metric by which to judge whether government policies were “sustainable.” That metric became the money supply. This was a classic example of a rather unimportant variable becoming important merely because people began to think it important.
You probably stumbled over the first sentence because a crucial comma was left out [in the original—I didn’t manipulate it]. The addition of the key punctuation mark after the word “before,” makes the entire thing immediately comprehensible:

Because the Bretton Woods system had broken down only a few years before, the financial markets needed a metric by which to judge whether government policies were “sustainable.”

As a frequent editor of other people’s prose as well as my own, I often get into disputes about why we need to have grammatical rules and follow them. My answer is, To save time, get to the point and not waste energy deciphering cuneiform or consulting Tarot cards. If we want to make sense to a reader, we agree to the meaning of the signage in use.

That lengthy preamble leads me to my beef de jour: between v/s among. This must be among the most abused and ignored distinctions in modern English.

The classic rule of usage is simple: between means that there are two elements in play, among means three or more. Communication with your boyfriend is “between” the two of you, sex in groups occurs “among” at least three—isn’t that graphic? So here are just a few of the recent examples I’ve accumulated where this guidelines is flushed down the grammatical toilet:

The facts: The PPACA regards health care not as a “right,” but as a “shared responsibility” between “the federal government, state governments, insurers, employers and individuals” (IRS, “Questions and Answers on the Individual Shared Responsibility Provision”; see also 42 U.S. Code Chapter 157, Subchapter V – SHARED RESPONSIBILITY FOR HEALTH CARE).


Even if results are declared clean, they will only be final if one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. Anything lower triggers a second round runoff, and with strong competition between the top three candidates another polling day seems more likely than not. Emma Graham-Harrison, The Guardian, April 6, 2014

“At their peak, during the Soviet period, the town's three glass factories employed more than 15,000 people between them.” --Shaun Walker, Ukraine: siege mentality pushes south-eastern region to precipice of civil war, The Guardian, May 9, 2014

It is sometimes assumed that Sisi's grip on power is total. Certainly he enjoys more influence than any other Egyptian and has a large, sycophantic following. But how much power he wields directly – and how much cohesion there is between his army, the secret police, the cabinet, and the judiciary – is unknown. Patrick Kingsley, The Observer, March 22, 2014

Or how about this howler?

According to the information obtained from sources, the recording consists of a chat between four officials in Davutoğlu’s office before the commencement of the official meeting with the participation of more civil and military bureaucrats in another room at the Foreign Ministry. Moon of Alabama, March 28, 2014

You might say, Who cares? What’s the big deal if we see that there are actually four officials schmoozing in Turkey or three glass factories in the Soviet Union? Well, take a look at this admirably correct use of the two prepositions and see how much clarity is added to the paragraph [BRICs refers to Brazil, Russia, India and China]:

In some ways, the other BRICs countries’ support for Russia is entirely predictable. The group has always been somewhat constrained by the animosities that exist between certain members, as well as the general lack of shared purpose among such different and geographically dispersed nations. –Zachary Keck, “Why did the BRICs back Russia on Crimea?” The Diplomat, March 31, 2014

This commentator refers both to the bilateral dealings that crop up between, say, China and Brazil or Russia and China and to the whole-group arena where they have or do not have joint interests. The correct placement of the lead-in words facilitates quick comprehension of the different circumstances involved in the same sentence. It is a complex thought that we can grasp without the assistance of a psychic.

Then note, by contrast, how the incorrect usage below muddies the conceptual waters instead of saying what it is trying to mean:

But while a cookie-cutter approach will not recognize differences between countries, conversely, overemphasizing national ownership can leave room for forces that defeat the very purpose of international intervention. A politically savvy and productive strategy would entail improved communication between the target governments and global health institutions. To that end, international health institutions should learn to conduct effective health diplomacy and to negotiate with their counterparts in a manner that is simultaneously candid, nuanced, and practical. -Global Fund Observer, 16 April 2014

The first between is incorrect because the writer means to describe the broad diversity of countries, not one-on-one comparisons. Although the second between is correct, it almost comes too late to help us through this swamp of a paragraph.

So class, let’s all avoid being a DON’T-BEE and steer clear of wrong-headed prose like this:

Jefferson encouraged new skills, but did not provide any formal reading and writing instruction. In fact, he thought slaves should not learn to write because they could pass info between themselves which might lead to revolt. – Comment on Coursera thread, "History of the Slave South," U. of Pennsylvania, March 2014

Given that I suspect there were more than two slaves who might have wanted to pass around information, I’d vote for “among” here.

But to end on a positive note, three hurrahs for whoever gave us this wonderful phrase describing long-suffering, elderly rural Russian women in Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s marvelous New Yorker story of May 12, 2014, “The Fugitive”:

There were two teeth among the three of them.

Bravo to Lyudmila. Or her editor.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Can some common sense inform our foreign policy?

As the Ukrainian tragedy lurches toward internecine slaughter seasoned with ultra-nationalist bullshit, I enjoy the observations of an astute political scientist who carries no water for any of the many sides, Harvard professor Stephen Walt. He’s a relief after hearing the knee-jerk leftist commentary attributing all cynical nastiness to the Obama camp and in essence letting Putin off the hook. Others, who share my sympathy with the Ukrainians who ousted a kleptocratic regime, seem determined to ignore the crude and unhelpful role of their self-interested western backers, Russian (not just Putin’s) sensibilities about their borders, and especially the undeniable presence of neonazis in the power vacuum produced by the Ukrainian uprising.

Walt writes in his Foreign Policy blog (open access if you keep below a half-dozen articles per month) in the spirit of his “realist” philosophy of geopolitics, which I take to mean that, generally speaking, nation states have interests, not morals, and while it’s all very nice to talk about freedom, democracy and human rights, that’s mostly not how the sausage gets made.

I am cariacaturing him, but over the years I have come to appreciate his cut-the-crap posture, which is not at all the same as the neocon arrogance manifested by the Bush-Cheney criminals. (Walt consistently hated what they did and said so). Nor does he think much of the liberal interventionist wing represented by Samantha Power and, earlier, those who backed the attack on Serbia and the independence of Kosovo.

In his article called “The Bad Old Days Are Back,” Walt dismisses the idea that power politics is a thing of the past as so much facile rhetoric, especially given the blatant use of force by those who purport to think we’ve moved beyond that messy old history. In fact, pretending that power politics is gone to be replaced by a Fuyukamian consensus about a universal western-style liberal capitalist state looks a lot like a convenient cover to getting one’s own way—sort of like the way military dictatorships love to say that they’re above “politics.”

Because this vision was both seductive and self-congratulatory, it’s unsurprising that so many members of the U.S. foreign-policy elite succumbed to it. A world without power politics put the United States at the center of a supposedly tranquil order and portrayed America’s global role in a consistently positive light. It offered up an optimistic vision of international affairs in which mutually beneficial cooperation was the norm, yet it also gave the foreign-policy elite plenty of worthy and seemingly feasible projects to pursue in the name of the greater global good. With power politics gone, American foreign-policy mandarins could focus on a bunch of not-very-powerful “rogue states” and on spreading democracy, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, chasing down terrorists, spreading human rights, and whatever other worthy projects occurred to them.

Indeed, a lovely fantasy. But Walt then lays out why it didn’t quite work out:

The hubris of NATO expansion. In the early years after the Soviet collapse, no one could stop the U.S. from pushing the eastern boundaries of its military alliance as far as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states with further ambitions openly discussed. Some in the foreign policy apparatus may now be regretting that Poppy Bush’s promises in the 1990s that the U.S. would not do that were ignored.

The hubris of remaking the map of the Middle East by military force: not much need be said about the stupidity of turning the 9/11 tragedy into an excuse to conquer a country that had nothing to do with it. Result: some trillions of dollars wasted, more terrorism than ever spreading throughout the region and serious diversion of needed attention from problems elsewhere.

Ongoing mishandling of China: “If power politics is over, Beijing doesn’t” seem to have gotten the message,”says Walt.

Ongoing mishandling of Russia: Guess what, the Russians perceive that they have interests in what happens in the states along their border, what a surprise. Putin and his mafia state couldn’t have appreciated the overthrow of a kindred spirit next door, either. While it would make sense to hope for something more humane to take their place, the wisdom of sending John McCain to rally with Ukrainians in the town square escapes me—unless you specifically wish to provoke Putin’s reaction or stick a finger in his eye.

Walt also argues that the U.S. has spent so much on its military that the allies have had a free ride. And he notes that the financial meltdown and subsequent Obama-led financiers’ coup smashed the aura of the Washington Consensus, showing the world that the current state of free-market capitalism isn’t all they’ve cracked it up to be.

Walt concludes that the “unipolar moment” post-1990 in which Washington called all the shots has come to an abrupt end. He worries that the neocon bluster that you hear from the disloyal GOP opposition is gaining strength given the lack of coherent policy orientation from the current team. He sees the entire foreign policy establishment floundering out of a refusal to see the world in “realist” geopolitical terms, which leads them to accuse Russia and China of aberrant behavior rather than doing exactly what one would expect—and what we would do if the roles were reversed. “Are they kidding us, kidding themselves, or all three at once?” he asks.

Walt’s advice, which will be ignored just as his sustained criticism of the Israel lobby has been, is to get real, “play hardball with friends and foes alike, . . . set clear priorities and stick to them instead of being blown off course by each new crisis or upheaval.”

Walt is not an insider, for now, at least. But he represents a sober, establishment view. I wonder how much he appreciates the takeover of the state by the financier elites and their influence on policy decisions. And I’m a lot more cynical about the benign marvels of American power. But for avoiding debacles and wasteful adventurism, we could do a lot worse than follow his advice.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Political trial against Occupy notches first scapegoat

In a city where cops can march into a kid’s home and gun him down in front of his grandmother without facing charges, an Occupy protester has now been convicted of assaulting a police officer based on a grainy video and could face seven years in prison. [above, dangerous criminal McMillan talks to her lawyer]

Jurors weren’t allowed to hear that the officer who claimed Cecily McMillan assaulted him has a long history of accusations of violence against civilians and is also implicated in the mass ticket-fixing scandal involving cops illegally taking care of their friends.

The details of the case will be debated just as they were in the courtroom, but this is a political, not a criminal prosecution. Plenty of people got hurt in the Occupy incidents, but when a college student gets pursued for a serious felony while no cops are disciplined, we get the message: do not resist us.

Obama and his team, while they pander to the interests of the 1%, pretend openness to dissident voices, but either authorized or stood by watching the multi-city, militarized crushing of the Occupy encampments. The McMillan prosecution is the follow-up chapter. It’s fine for them if Ukrainians mobilize to resist theft and corruption—not Americans.

Just in case we had lingering doubts, the judge refused McMillan bail and remanded her to Rikers Island.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Ukraine: Market worship as a substitute for diplomacy

Anatole Kaletsky writes in a Reuters blog that the economic sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the seizure of Ukrainian territory “have proved pathetically ineffetual in deterring” Putin’s increased interference.

Even more interesting than the mechanics of sanctions, however, is his implied argument that U.S. policymakers are at the mercy of their own ideological (read: neoliberal) blinders about the role of money and economics and what that means for what is left of our collective biped future.

Kaletsky writes that the sanctions on Putin are reminiscent of an accidental experiment in Israel described by philosopher Michael Sandel in which parents were charged a fine if they arrived late to pick up their kids from daycare. The idea was to make them stop.

Instead, it led to more late pick-ups because the parents, logically and even predictably, no longer felt a moral duty to cooperate with the daycare center and simply viewed the charge as a babysitting fee. If the price was right, they now felt they had carte blanche to show up as late as they wanted. Kalestsky notes that the school “inadvertently transformed a moral relationship into a commercial one.”

President Barack Obama has been explicit about this. He repeatedly uses phrases such as “rising costs” and “calculus…to the Russian economy” in explaining his actions. The effects of trying to substitute economics for military diplomacy are likely to be highly destabilizing. For Russia, a weaker ruble and an economic recession are clearly a price worth paying for recapturing Crimea.

The analysis is telling and pretty scary when one thinks of all the territorial disputes in the world today and the disputing countries’ various leaderships sitting around with calculators saying to each other, How much will it cost us to grab the X Islands or bulldoze our way into our enemy neighbor’s lands?

Is this not another sign of the moral collapse of the neoliberal model in which all human activity is to be reduced to a monetary calculus under the benign reign of Markets, where people are merely Adam Smithian specimens of Homo economicus out fulfilling our individual desires and thereby creating the Best of All Possible (market-based) Worlds? Have we not been told for decades now that our social relationships must be transformed into commerce, that the state’s role as guarantor of equity and citizenship must be set aside by the inexorable logic of private enterprise and market magic?

Instead of retreating immediately to a weird faith in economic sanctions, U.S. and European leaders might have accepted the need for what Kaletsky calls “a long and complex diplomatic negotiation” that might have led to “a compromise reluctantly accepted by all parties.” But the very language belies everything about how the U.S. views itself these days. Sorry, we don’t do “reluctant acceptance”—the other guy does. Negotiations would have required a climb-down from the short-sighted faith dating from 1990 that Russia was toast and we/they were the only game in town.

Instead, as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, etc., America’s persistent insistence on getting its way, all its way and nothing but it way is leading to outright defeat, as probably will become obvious in the Ukraine in a matter of days.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Philanthropic sleaze

Just back from a completely amazing performance of La Cerenterola (Cinderella) by Rossini at the Metropolitan Opera starring the two top singers out there in my increasingly knowledgeable amateur opinion, luscious Juan Diego Florez [left] and coloratura master Joyce DiDonato. The program notes that the production, now several years old, was “made possible” by a donation from one Alberto Vilar.

If one isn’t paying close attention, one could easily not be aware of the fact that Mr. Vilar currently resides in federal prison where he was dispatched for the crime of securities fraud. That is to say, that the generous “donation” which “made possible” this lovely operatic tour de force may have been “made possible” with other people’s money. That didn’t stop the Met, however, from saying, “Thanks again!”

In a city that stages ballet at the David H. Koch Theatre and hosts literary functions at the Stephen Schwartzman (Blackstone Group) main branch of the New York Public Library (the famous lions), this should not come as much of a surprise. But it is a telling side note on the seamy underbelly of this liberal city.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Springtime for Stalin

The Russian author Vladimir Sorokin [asbove in 1991], in a telling piece in the New York Review of Books, steps back from the debate over Ukraine to ask what the seizure of Crimea et al. will mean for Russia itself. Sorokin argues that Russia never really got a revolution at all, merely a collapse, which is not the same thing. Underneath the superficial changes, he asserts, is the old Homo sovieticus alive and well.

Yeltsin’s revolution ended up being “velvet”: it did not bury the Soviet past and did not pass judgment on its crimes, as was the case in Germany after World War II. All those Party functionaries who became instant “democrats” simply shoved the Soviet corpse into a corner and covered it with sawdust. “It will rot on its own!” they said.

Alas, it didn’t. In recent opinion polls, almost half of those surveyed consider Stalin to have been a “good leader.” In the new interpretation of history, Stalin is seen as an “effective manager,” and the purges are characterized as a rotation of cadres necessary for the modernization of the USSR. . . . The Soviet mentality turned out to be tenacious; it adapted to the wild capitalism of the 1990s and began to mutate in the post-Soviet state.

If Sorokin is correct, the average Russian’s enthusiasm for Putin’s seizure of Ukrainian territory is, at least in part, nostalgia for the old communist system emerging from the closet.

There is a lot of talk about the strength of fascists in the Ukraine, and reporters have found some in the Right Sector and plenty of dubious sorts now in the government itself. However, Ukraine has no monopoly on that nasty tendency. Sorokin, who wrote a deadly satire on the Russian secret police called Day of the Oprochnik, took note of new phrases cropping up in Putin’s lexicon.

In his speech about the accession of Crimea to Russia, President Putin mentioned a “fifth column” and “national traitors” who are supposedly preventing Russia from moving victoriously forward. As many have already remarked, the expression “national traitor” comes from Mein Kampf. These words, spoken by the head of state, caused a great deal of alarm in many Russian citizens. The intelligentsia went into shock. The Russian intelligentsia, it should be said, is now especially alarmed.

Sorokin says that unpredictability, always “Russia’s calling card,” now has grown to unprecedented levels. No one knows what is coming next, he says, including Putin himself. He sympathizes with the Ukrainians who faced bullets to rid themselves of a kleptocracy and only wishes his fellow Russians were capable of doing the same.